“Therefore, my people will go into exile for lack of understanding; their men of rank will die of hunger and their masses will be parched with thirst. Therefore, the grave enlarges its appetite and opens its mouth without limit; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers.”
In May of 1838, seven thousand US soldiers (the bulk of the American Army at the time) arrived in New Echota in northwest Georgia under the command of General Winfield Scott. The troops scoured the hills and valleys of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama, arriving at small log cabins and tidy farms. There, they forced families from their dinner tables at bayonet point, captured children at play and men in the field, separating them and herding them into concentration camps. The prisoners (for that is what they were, even though none had committed a crime) were not allowed any but a few meager possessions, what they could carry on their backs. Behind the soldiers came a drunken mob of looters occasionally called the “militia,” to steal what remained, burn down the cabins, and even dig up the graves of ancestors to strip the corpses of gold and jewelry. In the camps, women, children and the elderly slept on the cold ground. The food was scarce and the water, tainted. Disease soon spread. These refugees, victims of the first, but sadly not the last major ethnic cleansing in American history, were the A Ni Yv Wi Ya, the Principal People, better known as the Tsa La Gi—the Cherokee. They were about to walk Ge Tsi Ka Hv Da A Ne Gv I, the Trail of Tears, solely because they had the temerity to be Indians living on land white people desired.
The Cherokee, along with the Muscogee (Creek), the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole, other victims of Removal, are sometimes referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes,” a particularly galling term, given what was done to them. “Civilized,” in this sense meant “acting like white people.” The Cherokee gave up traditional hunting for farming and herding. Some (like James Vann) became wealthy plantation owners and bought and sold black slaves. While they backed Britain during the American Revolution, the Cherokee actually fought for the United States during the War of 1812. Had they listened to the great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh in 1811 and joined his alliance with the English, American history would have been very different. Legend has it that at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, a Cherokee chief named Junaluska saved the life of an obscure backwoods Tennessee lawyer and politician-general named Andrew Jackson. Junaluska said later that if he had known what Jackson, known as Sharp Knife, would do later, he would have killed him himself. In 1821, the Cherokee genius Sequoyah did what no Indian, indeed no single person in history, had ever done: invent a written language. A written constitution was adopted in 1827, one which required belief in the Christian God as a prerequisite for office, but which was otherwise modeled on the US Constitution, which had in turn been modeled on the Iroquois League, the ancestors of the Cherokee. The first-ever Indian language newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, began publishing in 1828; it is still published today.
Sharp Knife (who was elected President in 1828, thanks to the fame the Cherokee brought him at Horseshoe Bend) and Georgia didn’t care. They wanted the land, especially after gold was found, and they wanted the Indians gone. Georgia in particular was willing to do anything to get it, including abolish democracy. Freedom of speech was done away with; anyone who argued that the Cherokee should be allowed to keep their homes would be imprisoned. Freedom of religion was denied; Samuel Worcester, missionary, was arrested for daring to minister in the Cherokee Nation. Bands of white “surveyors” and bandits roamed freely, dividing off land already owned and occupied to be given away by government lottery to white men. Unlike the Creek and the Seminole, the “civilized” Cherokee did not fight. They did what “civilized” people do; they hired lawyers. William Wirt, former Attorney General of the United States, argued the Cherokee’s case before the US Supreme Court. The Cherokee won; Georgia’s actions, wrote Chief Justice John Marshall, were “repugnant to the Constitution.” It still didn’t matter. For the first time, but unfortunately not the last, a President decided he was above the law. Marshall has made his decision, Jackson said, now let him enforce it. The lawful, duly-elected government of the Cherokee Nation refused to sign a removal treaty, so the government found a group of Cherokee who would, despite their lack of authority. The “Treaty of New Echota” was signed in 1835. Major Ridge, the greatest orator of the tribe, who fought beside Sharp Knife at Horseshoe Bend, and who had insisted on a new Cherokee law that mandated the death penalty for those who gave away tribal land, said at the time that he was signing his own death warrant. He, his son John Ridge, and his nephew Elias Boudinot, editor of the Phoenix, would all be assassinated for their part in the treaty.
And so the Cherokee were driven like cattle through Tennessee and Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas to the Indian Territory, where land was granted to them “forever” (or until 1907, when the US government would unilaterally abolish the tribal government and give most of their land to white people). Weather, disease and starvation killed at least 4,000, perhaps twice that. The Trail is littered with their unmarked graves. And yet, like the literal translation of Cherokee Phoenix, Tsa-la-gi Tsu-le-hi-sah-nuh-hi, “the Cherokee will rise again.” Today, the Cherokee (in Oklahoma and in the hills of North Carolina, where through the efforts of the white man William H. Thomas, a remnant never left) are the second largest tribe in America. On March 11, my family and I were at Pea Ridge National Military Park in northern Arkansas. There, with maybe 200 others, led by Principal Chief Chad Smith, we walked part of the Trail of Tears. A threatened storm blew in and the rain began to fall on us as we walked the path through the bare trees, gently at first, then more insistently. By the time we reached the park headquarters, rain and hail came in blinding horizontal sheets. The doors blew open and the panoramic window quivered ominously. And then, in an instant, it stopped. The sun shone through for the first time all day. The Cherokee will rise again.